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Justice Department faults Seattle police use of force

December 16, 2011 | 12:52 pm

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The Seattle police department has engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates federal law and the Constitution, the Department of Justice announced on Friday.

The finding comes after a more than eight-month investigation into the police use of force, said Assistant Atty. Gen. Thomas E. Perez of the department’s civil rights division. He was joined at a Seattle news conference by U.S. Atty. Jenny A. Durkan of the Western District of Washington.

“Our investigation has revealed that inadequate systems of supervision and oversight have permitted systemic use of force violations to persist at the Seattle Police Department,” Perez said. “Our findings should serve as a foundation to reform the police department and to help restore the community’s confidence in fair, just and effective law enforcement.”

But the federal investigation did not find that police had engaged in discriminatory policing, according to a letter sent by officials to the city.

“Our investigation raises serious concerns on this issue,” federal officials wrote. Investigators noted that parts of the city believe that the police department engages in discriminatory policies because of the widely reported incidents involving violence against minorities.

“This perception can significantly undermine the trust necessary for SPD to conduct effective policing in minority communities,” investigators said.

The federal probe was launched last spring and is not tied to any specific incident. But it came after a Native American wood carver, John T. Williams, was fatally shot by police in 2010. The American Civil Liberties Union and more than two dozen other community groups called for the investigation.

Williams was holding a piece of wood and a knife as he crossed the street, according to a police video of the incident. Officer Ian Birk left his car to chase Williams and shouted for him to drop the knife then fired several shots. A folded knife was recovered.

Birk maintained that he was threatened by Williams, but a later review board found the shooting was unjustified. Birk eventually resigned.

Though the Williams incident was the most well-known nationally, there were others. Officers were recorded using anti-Mexican epithets as they beat a Latino man, wrongly believed to be a robbery suspect. There were also incidents of African American males being beaten.

“For many years, the city of Seattle periodically has faced accusations of police misconduct, including claims of excessive force and discriminatory policing techniques. Over the last decade, the city has responded to these allegations by implementing significant measures to improve police oversight, including developing and refining an elaborate police accountability system,” investigators said.

In its letter sent to Seattle city officials, including Mayor Michael McGinn, the federal officials said they found “a pattern or practice of constitutional violations regarding the use of force that result from structural problems, as well as serious concerns about biased policing. Resolution of our findings will require a written, court-enforceable agreement that sets forth remedial measures to be taken within a fixed period of time.”

But the federal authorities also said they were aware of the special problems that the Seattle police department faced and that could have contributed to officers' overreaction.

“We were mindful of the realities police officers face and the service they provide,” they wrote. In Seattle, “those realities include the backdrop of the murders of five police officers in and around Seattle, and the attempted murder and wounding of a sixth officer. These deaths were the result of unprovoked, unexpected attacks against on-duty uniformed officers by members of the community. We do not underestimate the impact that these events have on all police, and particularly on SPD officers.”

The Justice Department looked at a sample of police reports on the use of force between Jan. 1, 2009, to April 4, 2011. Federal investigators said they found that when Seattle officers used force, they did so in “an unconstitutional manner nearly 20% of the time.”

The report also noted that Seattle officers resorted to weapons such as batons and flashlights too quickly, “57% of the time, it is either unnecessary or excessive,” it said. It also found deficiencies in supervisor oversight on the use of weapons and inadequate policies and training in how to stop pedestrians.

“The solution to the problems identified within the Seattle Police Department will require strong and consistent leadership along the chain of command, effective training and policies and vigilant oversight,” Durkan said.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: Seattle police officers in riot gear surround a Chase bank branch during a demonstration last month near the University of Washington in Seattle. A federal report on Friday faulted police use of force. Credit: Elaine Thompson / Associated Press

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